John Gould

14 September 1804 – 3 February 1881

An English ornithologist and one of the world’s most noted figures in bird illustration

Often referred to as the ‘father of bird study in Australia’, the English ornithologist John Gould created several esteemed collections of bird illustrations over his long career. He was the most prolific artist and publisher of ornithological subjects of all time.

In nineteenth century Europe Gould’s name was as well known as Audubon’s was in North America. But unlike Audubon, whose life’s work focused on one region, Gould traveled widely and employed other artists to help create his lavish hand-colored lithographic folios.

Nearly 3,000 lithographs were created during the span of his long ​career.

Although he was not the artist of the illustrations within his collections, it was Gould’s vision, dedication and supervision that led to the production of so many important works.

During his career he carefully documented birds and habitats in a range of environments from Australia to the Himalayas.

Born in Lyme Regis, West Dorset, Gould followed in his father’s footsteps to become a gardener. He secured a position as foreman in the Royal Gardens of Windsor in 1818.

Following his training at Windsor from 1818 to 1824, Gould later became a gardener at Ripley Castle in Yorkshire. Alongside his garden duties, Gould developed a passion for taxidermy – establishing his own taxidermist business in London.

Perhaps his most notable commission was for the stuffing of a pet giraffe for King George IV in 1826.

In 1827, Gould’s expertise gained him a role at the Zoological Society of London as the museum’s first curator and preserver. This position gave Gould access to several of Europe’s leading naturalists and he was often among the first to see the exotic new collections of birds given to the society.

Following the arrival of a collection of exotic bird skins from the Himalayas in 1830, Gould began the first of his monograph collections.

The book A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains, gained instant popularity and Gould followed this success with collections on the birds of Europe, Asia, Australia and New Guinea. He also created volumes dedicated to toucans, hummingbirds, birds-of-paradise and in a departure from feathered creatures; kangaroos.

Although he did not create the artwork for his collections himself, Gould worked with several established artists including his wife Elizabeth Gould, the poet and illustrator Edward Lear and German artist Joseph Wolf.

A notable point in Gould’s career came when he provided his expertise and guidance to Charles Darwin. In 1837, having returned from his second voyage aboard HMS Beagle, Darwin presented the mammal and bird specimens collected during his trip to the Zoological Society of London.

Gould was given the responsibility of identifying the birds which would later become known as ‘Darwin’s finches’. Gould’s knowledge provided vital information that helped Darwin develop his theory of evolution.

Over his lifetime, Gould created over 40 volumes of work, with over 3,000 colored plates, providing amazing insights into previously undiscovered species. He continued to work up until his death in 1881.

Gould published a number of monographs on birds, illustrated by plates that he produced with the assistance of his wife, Elizabeth Gould, and several other artists including Edward Lear, Henry Constantine Richter, Joseph Wolf and William Matthew Hart.

The Birds of Asia is regarded as one of Gould’s greatest works and was in production longer than any of his other collections, taking 34 years for the publication of its 35 parts.

The ornithologist was fascinated by the diversity of the exotic, colorful species of Asia, and he conveyed his enchantment to viewers, creating one of his most monumental and magnificent sets.

For the preparation of Birds of Asia, Gould’s team of artists was joined by the German-born Josef Wolf, bringing Gould’s vision to life with detailed compositions showing the birds in their natural environment.

Gould placed many of the overwhelmingly vibrant, showy and elegant birds in settings appropriately lush and detailed. Perhaps more than in any of his other productions, he was careful to create an environment that was extensively delineated and highly accurate. In many of Gould’s other books, the background was subtle or nonexistent, but he was clearly fascinated by the foliage and wildlife of Asia.

Birds of Asia was an overwhelming success, despite the great length of time over which it was produced. It was also a stunning feat in that, throughout the four decades of its production, the quality remained outstandingly high.

The collection was immensely popular with noted subscribers including Queen Victoria, the Emperor of Austria and kings from Belgium, Hanover and Portugal. 

View Birds of Asia

A Monograph of Ramphastidae or Family of Toucans (1834) is the most flamboyant of Gould’s works.

Originally issued in three parts, Gould’s Family of Toucans depicts toucans in Mexico, Central and South America and some West Indian islands.

Gould was inspired to create this work after seeing the toucan collection of a fellow ornithologist.

Several of the illustrations were created by Edward Lear and his plates showing both young and fully-grown birds are often regarded as among the best of his ornithological works.

With vivid colors, the toucans are presented against simple backgrounds, highlighting the beauty and vibrancy of the birds.

This collection includes 51 prints.

View Family of Toucans

While the majority of Gould’s work focuses on bird species, this collection offers something completely different with 30 fine hand-colored plates depicting kangaroos.

With amazing detail, Gould’s work introduced this fascinating creature to an amazed European audience for the first time.

Explaining why he was drawn to create the collection during his trip to Australia, Gould said:

“It was not until I arrived in the country, and found myself surrounded by objects as strange as if I had been transported to another planet, that I conceived the idea of devoting a portion of my attention to the mammalian class of its extraordinary fauna.”

A Monograph of the Macropodidæ, or Family of Kangaroos​ includes 30 prints.

In The Birds of Great Britain, Gould depicted detailed scenes including nests, chicks and eggs; scenes that were often ignored by other bird artists of the time who only focussed on adult birds.

Gould wrote: “I also felt that there was an opportunity of greatly enriching the work by giving figures of the young of many of the species of various genera – a thing hitherto almost entirely neglected by authors, and I feel assured that this infantile age of birdlife will be of much interest for science.”

Gould published the collection himself, producing 750 copies, in 25 parts. As each volume included 367 illustrations, all hand colored, this was a huge undertaking.

In the introduction to the collection, Gould writes: “Every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were colored by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought.”

This collection includes 367 prints.

View The Birds of Great Britain

While Gould was clearly fascinated by all birds, the hummingbird was perhaps his favourite. During his lifetime he identified over 400 species of hummingbird and exhibited his personal collection at the General Exhibition of 1851.

A Monograph of the Trochilidae or Family of Hummingbirds volume is based on specimens from Gould’s own collection.

Gould wrote: “These wonderful works of creation… my thoughts are often directed to them in the day, and my night dreams have not infrequently carried me to their native forests in the distant country of America.”

Gould’s collaborator on the text of this project was Richard Bowdler Sharpe, the curator of birds at the British Museum, and a friend of Gould’s since he had met Sharpe as a boy collecting birds along the river Thames.

Sharpe enlisted the talented artist William Hart to create original watercolors for these six volumes, a collaboration that was the first of many.

Most images show at least one subject in flight to accentuate the coloring of their feathers. The compositions generally show the birds in animated groupings of two or three, surrounded by foliage and landscapes. All of the hummingbirds are drawn to scale and are anatomically correct to the smallest detail.

Gould’s Family of Hummingbirds represents a splendid triumph of aesthetic sensitivity and scientific rigor. Many of Gould’s best-known images come from this beautiful and comprehensive monograph on hummingbirds.

This collection consists of 6 volumes and includes 419 prints.

View Family of Hummingbirds

Published in seven volumes between 1840 and 1848, The Birds of Australia is regarded as one of Gould’s greatest works. Depicting 681 species, it was considered the first complete survey of the birds of Australia with 328 new species introduced by Gould. 

John and Elizabeth travelled to Australia in 1838 and spent almost two years collecting species for the work. Elizabeth created the illustrations for 84 plates but died in 1841 before the project was completed.

The majority (595) of the remaining plates were produced by the English zoological illustrator HC Richter who completed the illustrations based on Elizabeth’s early sketches.

A further plate was completed by Edward Lear and one by the English natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.

250 sets were printed and complete sets of the original volume recently sold at auction for over A$350,000.

This collection includes 681 prints.

View The Birds of Australia

Gould conceived of this sweeping, lavish book as a complement to his unprecedented Birds of Asia.

The Birds of New Guinea was Gould’s last full-scale work, left incomplete on his death in 1881. Gould completed twelve of the twenty-five parts, and the task of finishing the project fell to Richard Bowdler Sharpe, a superbly qualified successor, who had been Gould’s colleague, assistant and friend.

One of Gould’s most exotic works, the five magnificent volumes of the Birds of New Guinea contain an extensive series of beautiful images of birds of paradise, bower birds, parrots, parakeets, cockatoos, kingfishers and hawk-owls. The birds of paradise were so strikingly beautiful that Sharpe later issued what amounted to a supplement of this work, focusing on the most colorful and exquisite subjects.

All of the 325 images are extraordinary for their color and artistry, interesting backdrops and animated compositions.

‘The halo of romance which for nearly a century has centred round New Guinea and its animals does not get dimmed as time speeds on, indeed it shines more brightly than ever’, wrote Sharpe in his introduction.

View The Birds of New Guinea

After receiving a large number of birds from the Himalayan Mountains, Gould was inspired to create his first collection: A Century of Birds from the Himalayan Mountains.

Lavishly printed with detailed illustrations, the work set the tone for Gould’s future collections.

For this collection, Gould created sketches and his wife Elizabeth drew the final illustrations. As a publisher could not be found, Gould published the work privately.

Printed in 20 monthly parts, it was an instant success allowing Gould to go on to produce his other famous works.

This collection includes 80 prints.

View all Gould prints below